The summer before my senior year in high school, we were assigned to read Anna Karenina. I did not do my summer reading assignment. At least, however, I saw the movie, years later when there was a movie version with modern day stars, and I guess I didn’t know about the Sophie Marceau/Sean Bean one in the ‘90s. What I remember from the class discussions was that the Tolstoy novel was about wealthy Russian couples who thought their relationships would make them happy, but they didn’t. I’m sure I wouldn’t understand the magnitude of that as a teenager, even if I had read all 1,000 pages. Now I’ve lived it, so I know what they’re talking about. Still, give me a shot with Anna. I think I can save her.
Anna (Keira Knightley) is married to Karenin (Jude Law) but falls in love with Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and begins an affair with him. Other lovers court, mingle and adulter as well in this sprawling adaptation of Tolstoy. Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) discovers fulfillment in a simpler life and Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) freaks out a lot. I can’t say I love the source material, but this production made it not only accessible, but visually exciting.
Joe Wright shoots much of Anna Karenina through the proscenium of a theater. It gets a bit more complicated than that though, because characters in Anna Karenina go to this theater to watch the events of their life unfold inside, and sometimes characters transition from audience to stage and through different scene transitions. I think that’s pretty awesome. I don’t have to be too invested in who’s sleeping with whom and why Anna just isn’t happy no matter what man she’s with. I can concentrate on how to read the transitions both cinematically and within the theater.
Perhaps what’s most stunning about the proscenium approach is that it’s all practical. In an age of visual effects, the greatest effect is convincing us this artificial construction is a cinematic world with its own rules and physics. Wright has other visual tricks too. A ballroom dance scene zeroes in on two characters in a single take, eliminating the crowd of extras with good old-fashioned lighting and staging. At least I assume. Hey, maybe Wright just digitally erased all the extras and I fell for it. I guess if this is all one big theater production, that also explains why all these Russians speak English with British accents.
This aesthetic made it much more exciting to follow the twists and turns of a period costume drama. Anna isn’t happy with Karenin so she thinks this love affair with Vronsky will satisfy her. Then she’s still not happy. Sound like anyone you know? Anna goes bipolar, only they don’t have words like bipolar in 19th century Russia. It’s poignant to me that without medical treatments, people would seek social comfort, only to find it unfulfilling. Then of course the laws and society of the era make it too disadvantageous for Anna to leave Karenin.
I’d heard the stylization slows in the middle of the movie but it doesn’t really. Perhaps the small stretch without a theatrical transition seemed tedious in theaters, but when you’re watching at home looking at the timecode, you can see it’s only been about 10-20 minutes and it works as an ebb and flow, particularly when Anna is suffering a breakdown. You don’t need theater tricks to stay interested when that’s going on.
The Blu-ray is beautiful to watch. The entire transfer is perfectly clear, putting all the detail of the sets and costumes on display. The proscenium is particularly effective on Blu-ray because you can easily distinguish between the grounded reality of the audience and the heightened production design of what’s on stage. The colors of the historical wardrobe are bright and the gritty detail of locations like the train station show every snow flake or iron wrinkle. Since Anna Karenina is an epic, you cover many different locations in many different seasons, each one a shining example of beautiful framing and mise en scène.
The deleted scenes are really worth watching too. There are several more theatrical compositions and a couple elaborate dance numbers that work on a purely visual level. Thematically there are a few more meditations and debates on the nature of love. These scenes are all completely finished and in Blu-ray hi-def quality as well.
The six bonus featurettes are all a brief five minutes or less, but add up to about a half hour documentary on the making of the film. It covers all the basics you may be interested in: the adaptation, the theater concept, the costume design…
Joe Wright gives a good feature-length audio commentary too. He discusses thematic ideas from scene to scene and talks through how certain practical shots were achieved. He’s mellow enough and takes enough breaks that you could conceivably pay attention to the movie while he’s talking without too much interruption. That’s one of the advantages to a single commentator, though group commentaries can be engaging in their own way.
I don’t have any Jones for history but Anna Karenina is going to be in my rotation to watch semi-frequently. Wright’s unique construction of the world alone will give me material to analyze on repeat viewings, and it makes the relationships accessible enough to impact me emotionally. Maybe watching this movie will make my recurring nightmare about falling one class short of graduating high school go away.